Barbara J King at NPR is repeating her mantra that it’s wrongwrongwrong bad awful reprehensible to say that absurd beliefs are absurd.
Last Thursday, I spoke with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in a recorded interview at the NPR studios in Washington, D.C. That meeting was suggested by the American arm of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, in the wake of a post I wrote here at 13.7 last month.
In my original post, I questioned whether Dawkins was the best choice to be headline speaker at the March 24 Reason Rally in Washington, given that one of its goals was to change negative stereotypes about atheists.
Yes she did. She wondered if Dawkins was “the best man for the job” of giving the keynote speech at the Reason Rally, given its aim to “combat negative stereotypes about nonreligious Americans.”
In a 2006 interview with Steve Paulson at Salon (during his tenure as professor of public understanding of science), Dawkins suggested that greater intelligence is correlated with atheism. He also said that when it encourages belief in the absence of evidence, “there’s something very evil about faith.”
Slam. That noise you hear is the sound of thousands of minds closing down and turning away from anything that Dawkins might go on to say about science.
By choosing words hurtful and harsh, Dawkins closes off a potential channel of communication about science with people who hold faith dear in their lives.
I disputed her claim, and especially her way of making it, at the time.
She isolates the core issue clearly this time.
In insisting that he does not insult people who believe in God, only their beliefs, Dawkins tries for a distinction I find problematic.
On his blog last year, Dawkins called a person named Minor Vidal a “fool” for his expression of thanks to God after surviving a deadly plane crash. (To be fair, Dawkins called “billions” of other people fools, too, in the same post.)
Dawkins told me that if he insulted any person, he regrets it. But this example shows how hard it is, in practice rather than theory, to aim harsh language only at a person’s belief, and not at the person.
How much does that distinction matter? When it comes to religion, does demeaning a person’s belief not also demean the person?
Why use demeaning terms, and urge others to use them, for either the belief or the person?
Because many beliefs are absurd, and if everyone everywhere is deferential about them at all times, then it becomes a lot harder to get rid of them. That’s why. It seems so obvious. Many beliefs one just expects people to shed as they grow out of childhood, because of their obvious absurdity. It’s cute when a child thinks maybe her toys come to life when she’s asleep; it’s worrying if an adult thinks her car has a mind.
Check out Richard’s post about Minor Vidal. He wasn’t just calling him a fool, and he wasn’t just being randomly obnoxious – he was making a point (and a good one). Minor Vidal was the sole survivor of a plane crash in Bolivia that killed eight people, and he was found after three days by a rescue team.
And when he was eventually found, did he thank Captain Bustos and the rescue team? Did he thank the boy scout teachers who had taught him vital survival skills? We aren’t told. But what we are told is that he knelt down and thanked God. God who, he presumably must have believed, allowed the plane crash to happen in the first place and allowed his eight fellow passengers to die. He knelt down and thanked God. And billions of people, all around the world, will think that was a perfectly natural thing to do. They would have done the same. Does religion manufacture fools, or do fools gravitate towards religion?
Now on the one hand it’s perfectly understandable that Vidal felt enormous relief at being rescued, and thanking god may be just a way of expressing that – but still – on calm reflection one remembers the other eight, and the survival skills, and the hard work of the rescue team. It really is an ugly belief, that god drowned thousands but saved precious Me. It really is an ungrateful belief, that surgeons worked all night but it was god who saved My life. Richard really isn’t just being a big meanie to point that out.
Maybe because King is an anthropologist she has a vocational aversion to thinking that absurd beliefs are absurd.